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Here are some new reviews of children's books added to the Read That Again! website in Winter, 2010-11. These are new(ish) books, but might also include some older books we just found out about and liked more than others. Recommendations and submissions are welcome: please feel free to contact us about other books, new and old.

Many more books are reviewed in the site's permanent archives... These are organized alphabetically, either by Author Name or by Book Title.

New Book & Media Reviews: Winter, 2010-11

Picture Books & Chapter Books

"The Cowgirl Way: Hats Off To America's Women Of The West"
Written by Holly George-Warren
(Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

This is a wonderful book examining cowgirls as an American cultural icon, including profiles of country singers and screen stars as well as actual, rootin'-tootin' cowpunchin' rodeo riders and pioneer gals like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. The book is brief and concise, but packed with great anecdotes and profiles, as well as a trove of gorgeous western memorabilia and vintage photographs. The photos were what floored me most, especially some of the older pictures of female rodeo riders with some of the most striking expressions... and pretty horses, too! Author Holly George-Warren has delved into various aspects of "western" country culture before, but this emphasis on the contributions of women in particular is kinda nice. The light, celebratory tone is welcome, too, just right for younger readers. Highly recommended. (A)

"The Adventures Of Sir Gawain The True"
Written by Gerald Morris
Illustrated by Aaron Renier
(Houghton Mifflin/Sandpiper, 2011)

The third volume of author Gerald Morris's totally awesome "Knights' Tales" series, which retells (and reinvents) some of the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of The Round Table. Morris has written many modern versions of the Arthurian tales, but these volumes are pitched (perfectly) at younger readers, and have a deliciously humorous tone, poking fun at the tales of chivalry and valor. This book has the story of Sir Gawain, who discovers that being an undefeated fighter might not be as important as being a good friend or as being thoughtful and polite. The book is made up of short, mostly self-contained chapters and like the other two volumes, it's a delight to read out loud: bust out your bad English accents, and have a lot of fun! (A+)

"Other Goose: Re-Nurseried And Re-Rhymed Children's Classics"
Written and Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold
(Chronicle Books, 2010)

Picking up where his and Judy Sierra's B. B. Wolf fairytale spoofs left off, J. Otto Seibold rejiggers the Mother Goose canon, with goofy couplets and silly rhymes galore. I have to confess I didn't really get into this one myself -- Seibold is no Edward Lear. However, my daughter and wife did have a lot of fun reading this together, so I guess I'm outvoted. You'll have to decide for yourself whether to make it a tie. Oh, and this also won some children's book awards, so maybe I'm just plain wrong. (B)

"The Enchanted Forest Chronicles"
by Patricia Wrede
(Sandpiper, 2003)

I was so enchanted with the first book in this series, "Dealing With Dragons" (see below) that I HAD to buy the complete set to read along with my daughter. "Dealing With Dragons" features Princess Cimorene, one of the most refreshing female characters to come along in decades... Cimorene is self-possessed, practical, straightforward and totally unflappable: confronted by social pressures, unreason and outright aggression, Cimorene never loses her cool or gives in on what she believes to be right. Her character is wonderfully plain-spoken, level-headed and able to confront problems, delightfully determined to think for herself and to defuse conflict whenever she can, using logic and commonsense... Cimorene really is a terrific role model and has a refreshingly original voice. Well, at least in the first book. Books Two and Three (reviewed below) both drag horribly... I wouldn't say that Wrede became uninspired, but she sure got repetitive, and both stories grind on with extended periods of little action and lots of talk, but it's repetitive talk with multiple chapters that recycle the same ideas over and over again... Schtick that's okay the first few times -- a longwinded, wonky magician, a whiny enchanted donkey -- wears thin when overused, and Wrede also develops an unfortunate tendency to repeat long specialized phrases over and over, which contributes to a sense of monotony: a bad-guy named Arona Michaelear Grinogion Vamist is constantly referred to by his full name -- never just "Vamist" -- similarly, the Head Wizard Of The Society Of Wizards is referred by his full title, "The Head Wizard Of The Society Of Wizards," and a magical plant called invisible dusk-blooming chokeweed is always called "invisible dusk-blooming chokeweed," and never just plain old "chokeweed." Thus the dialogue and the narration grow stiff and unnatural, conversations become boring and the story stalls out... This dynamic begins in the second book, and overwhelms the third, which was, frankly, a chore to finish. Still, these are compelling books. The first is fabulous, the second okay (and you could stop there if you wanted) and while the third book is a drag, it ends in a cliffhanger, and you really have to read the fourth book to get closure. Also worth checking out is Wrede's collection of short stories, which refers back to this series. You could just read the first book - indeed, you *have to* read the first one, but be forewarned that the rest of the series might not live up to the high hopes at the beginning of the journey. That being said, assuming that someday a movie will be made of this series, I can assure you that we will be first in line once it comes. 'Nuff said. (A)

"Dealing With Dragons"
by Patricia Wrede
(Sandpiper, 1990)

Here we meet Princess Cimorene as a young girl, a no-nonsense gal in a storybook kingdom who is completely uninterested in living out the same old stories or in accepting the roles that are set out for her: Saved by a prince? Yawn. Zapped by a fairy godmother? No thank you. Cimorene wants to be her own person and think her own thoughts, and she sneaks in fencing classes and magic-making and history lessons whenever she can, although she is continually thwarted by her tradition-bound parents. When she is given an ultimatum to get married to some boring schnook of a prince or else, Cimorene comes up with a third alternative, and runs away to go live with a dragon. This "terrible fate" is socially acceptable to the folks back home, who believe that Cimorene's been taken prisoner, although really she's exactly where she wants to be. Her relationship to her dragon is as surprising and funny as the start of the book; a lot of writers have done send-ups of fairy-tale conventions, but few as delightfully as this. More importantly, the Cimorene character is a gem, a terrific role model with a refreshingly original voice. A really fun book -- highly recommended! (A++)

Comics & Graphic Novels

"Cul De Sac: Shapes And Colors"
Written and Illustrated by Richard Thompson
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010)

This is the third volume of the collected "Cul De Sac" newspaper strip, a great new series that my kid loves, and I do too... If you're an old "Calvin And Hobbes" fan, there's a lot to like here as well... There's a shared celebration of the twisted, kooky sense of humor that kids can have (and that adults often find so surprising) as well as their ever-imaginative twisting of reality. The main characters are the preschool-age, not-too-naughty Alice and her agoraphobic older brother Petey, their long-suffering Mom and Dad, and all the weird kids at school. Several years into the strip, cartoonist Richard Thompson has a real handle on his characters and there are several set-pieces that have become his equivalents of Snoopy's doghouse and Bill Watterson's Space Man Spiff. It's fun stuff. "Cul De Sac" is a real breath of fresh life into the American daily cartoon strip - an artform that I'd pretty much given up on many years ago. If you're looking for some good laughs, this book and the two earlier volumes are highly recommended (A)

"Lewis And Clark"
Written and Illustrated by Nick Bertozzi
(First Second, 2011)

This is an outstanding graphic novel telling the story of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark's fabled 1804-1806 journey across the American frontier in search of a water route, or "Northwest Passage," from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. (They failed to find one: the Rocky Mountains got in the way.) Working from the extensive journals compiled by explorers Lewis and Clark, artist Nick Bertozzi crafts a brisk, lively and humor-filled version of their journey, in which a small but hardy group of frontiersmen braved the hazards of harsh weather, unknown geography and unpredictable native tribes, and mapped out a hefty chunk of what would become the new American West. I am a total sucker for this kind of stuff, particularly when told in comicbook form, and Bertozzi's book ranks right up there with William Messner-Loebs' "Journey" and George O'Connor's "Journey Into Mohawk Country" (also published by First Second). The narrative is true to the original journals and although it could have been longer, it races along at a fine clip yet also has some heft. Bertozzi's artwork is as subtle as his script, evoking the wonder of the unspoiled vistas as well as the constant perils that confronted Lewis and Clark faced. This book is an ideal companion to the original text: students who find it difficult to picture the landscapes and scenes described in Lewis' prose will find this version immensely helpful. The book ends abruptly, however, and Bertozzi largely sidesteps the controversies concerning Merriweather Lewis's death -- he died of gunshot wounds in a Tennessee tavern; some historians think he was murdered, while most believe it was suicide: in this comic, he is last seen walking off into the woods, and later we are told he is dead. Although that sequence is unsatisfying, the book as a whole is not, and indeed is highly, highly recommended. And while you're at it, pick up a copy of the full "History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark", one of the finest American history books you'll ever read. (A)

"Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.1: The World According To Peter Parker"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by David LaFuente
(Marvel Comics, 2010)

Totally fun, despite the unwieldy new title. This book, the start of the second series of Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man, is completely in keeping with the earlier books. Brian Michael Bendis writes with the same lighthearted, entertaining feel as before; Peter's internal narration has the same ingratiating tone, and the stories mix action and character development just as before. The artwork is fine; those who moan about the supposedly shocking "manga" look are either oversensitive or exaggerating -- I didn't think it was that different than the template set by Stuart Immonen in the first series. In short, this is pretty much the same book as before and not a "reboot" or shark vaulting exercise. Still a top-notch super-book, and still one that's a keeper, as far as I'm concerned. (A)

"Vordak The Incomprehensible: How To Grow Up And Rule The World"
Written by Scott Seegert
Illustrated by John Martin
(Egmont, 2010)

A semi-hilarious send-up of super-villain conventions and cliches... This goofy, tongue-in-cheek how-to book tells would-be megalomaniacs how to hatch plots, design an secret lair, perfect your evil laugh, and how to hold a grudge against all those do-gooder heroes who are always bumbling about, and pick one to be your arch-nemesis. Some of it's pretty funny: my favorite bit is the Evil Name Generator, which places emphasis on Germanic consonants such as G, K, V, X and Z. If you still dream of imposing your evil will on all you see, this might be the book for you. (B+)

Activities & Games

Doodle Dice
(Jax Toys)

This is a fun, fast-moving game in which any number of players can roll a set of six dice and try and match the patterns on a series of colored cards. The cards have different levels of difficulty, ranging from one of the symbols on the dice up to patterns of six. The pictures the cards show have whimsical pictures and themes, creating an undercurrent of silliness and lightheartedness that makes the game itself even more enjoyable. A really nice game that lends itself to cheerful interactions and cooperative play, with some moderately challenging puzzles as well. Recommended! (A+)

Mystery Light Secrets Of The Sea
(Playroom Entertainment)

This is a great family game, simple enough for younger children, but fun and fast-moving and engaging even for adults. The board is set up with several dozen small tiles face down in six rows reaching from the top (the "surface") to the bottom of the "ocean." Each tile has a hidden treasure and can help earn extra points, but some tiles are worth more than others. On their turn, each player rolls two dice and decides how far down they want to go -- the "mystery light" is a small UV bulb that reveals the invisible symbols on the back of the tiles, letting you know what category the token is, but not how many points it's worth. The strategy of the game is mostly about risk-taking - do you take a bird in the hand, or dive deeper and run the risk of getting nothing if the air in your tank runs out? The game is easy to learn but surprisingly fun, and moves along quickly, especially with several players. We've had a lot of fun with this one. (A+)

"Play All Day"
Written and Illustrated by Taro Gomi
(Chronicle Books, 2010)

This is a truly fabulous activity book from Japanese author/designer Taro Gomi. It takes the devil-may-care, ignore-the-rules, pro-creativity messages of his Doodling and Squiggles books and puts them into immediate action, with a series of brightly-colored, wildly imaginative, deliriously fun punch-out play items -- goofy little finger puppets, fold-together paper boxes, a ring-toss game and a fold-out, pop-up cityscape with little cars and buildings and trees, all infused with Gomi's cute-but-clever design aesthetic. My kid never really latched onto the doodling books, but LOVED these projects. Ideal for parent-child bonding, or self-directed play and also a richly rewarding artistic endeavor. Sparks the creative mind! (A+)

Movies & Video

"Looney Tunes Super Stars: Bugs Bunny, Hare Extraordinaire"
(Warner Brothers, 2010)

At a certain point, I was forced to admit that the ginormous, multi-volume, super-completist "Golden Collection" series of Looney Tunes box sets is not an ideal format for introducing the classic cartoon canon to the littlest viewers: too many weird remnants of the racism and sexism of yesteryear, along with too many so-so episodes and even a few outright duds, all of which is hard to navigate past to get to the truly brilliant stuff. I'm a big fan, but even I gotta admit when I'm licked. However, having sunk my kids' college fund into these archival beauties, I was unwilling to then turn around and get the punchier "greatest hits" sets out there, and spend more money on stuff I already owned. So, hoo-ray for this humble series which gathers up a bunch of stuff not already included in the "Golden" discs. That's the good part. The not-so-good part is that many of these cartoons come from prints that were reformatted, literally cut, to fit onto TV screens, so the edges of the artwork (and sometimes even the top!) are missing from the frame. Alas! I'm sure that someday the folks at Warner will correct this and put out better, prettier versions, but in the meantime, if you want to see this "new" batch of great old cartoons, this is your best option. I'll go for it, 'cause I love Bugs Bunny... but I do wish it were a better product. (B)

"Looney Tunes Super Stars: Daffy Duck, Frustrated Fowl"
(Warner Brothers, 2010)

Same deal here, but hey, it's Daffy Duck. Yeah, sure, the less-than-perfect formatting is less than perfect, but these cartoons are still pretty fun, particularly the later Chuck Jones material, and having fifteen Daffy Duck cartoons that were not on the earlier collections is kinda nice. I just watched the disc with my kid and we laughed plenty... I mean, it's DAFFY for cryin' out loud! This product may be imperfect, and I'm sure these cartoons will be properly restored someday to a state that will make purists happy, but while the crankypants faction is busy picketing outside the studio gates, I for one will deign to laugh my a** off at these great old cartoons. (B)

"Looney Tunes Super Stars: Foghorn Leghorn, Barnyard Bigmouth"
(Warner Brothers, 2010)

Oh, man. You gotta love old Foghorn. And for my money, this is the best of the Superstars series, so far: it's got nine classic Foghorn Leghorn cartoons that have been buried in the vaults for ages, as well as a few "and friends" add-ons that include Pepe Le Pew, the lovesick skunk as well as some lesser stuff such as the Goofy Gophers, and a slightly stereotype-ridden Elmer Fudd cartoon where he takes pot shots at a pair of lazy Mexican crows who land in his cornfield. The Pepe Le Pew and Foghorn Leghorn carttons are the real gems, although it must be said that a little bit of Foghorn goes a long way: you might not want to marathon your way through this one from start to finish, but using it to spice up a Saturday morning TV session would be a lot of fun. And look! I didn't even try to do a lame Foghorn impersonation in this entire review... I say, I say... I didn't even tryyy! (B+)

"The Secret Of Kells"
(Flatiron Films, 2010)

This is a gorgeous, innovative and delightfully meaningful film, a fictionalized account of the making of the legendary Book Of Kells, one of the great surviving illuminated manuscripts of medieval Ireland. The visual imagery is amazing, packed with stunning composition and color, and imaginative direction. The pace of the film is a bit odd - deliberate in places, jumpy in others - and that, along with the deep, mystical fascination with nature and spirituality, reminded me of the work of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, just with a clearer historical perspective. Those who revere creative storytelling and animation will find a lot to love here, as will those who value historical awareness, knowledge and scholarship. A wonderful, magical movie. (A+)

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